Brighter Than Creation's Dark
If there is one thing people can pin down about my mercurial music tastes, it is that Drive-By Truckers are my favorite band. Other interests come and go, I take a temporary shine to some fine new thing, but my real love is true and deep. On the surface they speak to my sometimes-forced Southernness, examining that which causes a body to occasionally muse about and empathize with they who jump things in pickups. In the middle layer, they just plain rock out, unafraid to be that genius bar band every band secretly wants to be. Nobody will inspire air guitar out of me more than DBT. But when you cut through the skin of it and get to the meat of the matter, it's because their songs are full of losers and drug addicts and blue-collar saps that can't pay the bills and people who ain't in love anymore all colliding in the throbbing nexus of rock 'n' roll. Listening to their songs, dense as Faulkner, staggering around with a beer and a hard-on, is like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting, or the stars, or moss on a grave - the deeper you look, the more you see. Their latest record, Brighter Than Creation's Dark is a fine example.
Jason Isbell, crafter of "Outfit", probably one of the most perfect songs to emerge from the band, has departed for greener pastures on his own, with his ex Shonna Tucker finally unleashing her twang with honeydripping slow dance scorchers like "I'm Sorry Houston." I hope some daft country diva covers her "Homefield Advantage" and makes her a million dollars, leaving us who heard the glorious original version holding the real finder's fee. Also, I must say that readmitting pedal steel wizard John Neff back into the fold more than makes up for the hole in their three-guitar armada. I caught this same lineup on their semi-acoustic "The Dirt Beneath" and it was the best band I've ever heard. If by some clerical error I should wind up in Heaven, I suspect John Neff will have a day gig issuing epiphanies and mystery from his pedal steel on a nearby cloud. Nashville MVP Spooner Oldham on the Wurlitzer doesn't hurt either.
Patterson Hood, the wild-eyed poet son of a wolf and a Dollywood bride, is in exquisite form on his contributions. "Opening Act" glimmers with disappointment and acquiescence, tossing out the gem there's a big fat man on the mechanical bull in slow motion, like Deborah Winger like a wayward glance. His earnest moral compass struggles to point north on "The Righteous Path" and he practically erupts with empathetic fury on "The Man I Shot", undoubtedly inspired by the story of the same name from Tim O'Brien's Vietnam epic The Things We Carry. His shining moment, though, is always when his protagonist stands at the crossroads between doing the right thing and the fucked thing, and that happens in the sinister funk of "Goode's Field Road"
We'll pay the house off
When the salvage yard gets sold
And you don't know nothing
When the insurance man asks questions
About what went down out on Goode's Field Road
When I listen to one of Patterson's songs, he's always a little more real than anybody else. He doesn't bury his stories and truths in oblique private jokes; he doesn't clean up for company. His songs are about as pinpoint accurate and naked as they get.
Until, that is, I hear one of Mike Cooley's songs. Cooley suffers from the same affliction as Lou Reed, that he has too many brilliant things to say, too many syllables for one line to hold, and like Reed, he uses this peculiarity to remarkable advantage. On this record, his songs take on a more Buck Owens tinge than his usual death-knell blues. "Perfect Timing" is dead perfect country self-depreciation over a shuffle that evokes combines and laundry flapping on the line, bursting at the seams with all those words - I used to hate the fool in me only in the morning, now I tolerate him all day long. But if you want real lyrical mastery, wrap you pea-brain around this couplet from his barnburner "3 Dimes Down"
If the part about being who he was didn't help Tom get loose,
what's a guy without a T. gonna get? Totally screwed,
while chicken wing puke eats the candy apple red off his Corvette
C'mon! I've said this about Mike Cooley before, but who writes songs like this? Chicken wing puke! That is some motherfucking imagery. Brighter Than Creation's Dark is like every other Drive-By Truckers album, when I listen to it and then try to listen to something else after, I have ask their successors: You call that a song? Where is the blood, the chuckle, the hang dog look? Where is the slap in the face and wedding ring thrown form the car window? It's nowhere except in the songs of my favorite band..
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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